General Douglas MacArthur wades ashore in the Philippine Islands 1944. (photograph no. 531424; “General Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine Islands, 10/1944,” Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860–1982; U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD).
Douglas MacArthur was born into a military family in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 26 January 1880. His father, Arthur, had distinguished himself as a Union general in the Civil War. MacArthur attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated first in his class (with the highest marks ever received by any student) in 1903. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant of engineers, and spent the years prior to World War I in a number of teaching and staff positions, including one in Asia with his father and another with President Theodore Roosevelt. He was attached to the General Staff in 1913, and participated in the Vera Cruz expedition the following year.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, MacArthur was with the General Staff. He assisted in organizing the multistate National Guard “Rainbow” Division and was its chief of staff when it was assigned to France in October 1917. He served as a general during the Aisne-Marne campaign, commanding the Eighty-fourth Brigade at Saint-Mihiel (September 1918) and the Meuse-Argonne offensive (October- November). MacArthur was one of the last commanders who believed in leading from the front, and he received 10 medals for valor and two Purple Hearts. He stayed with the occupation forces until his return home in April 1919.
He became one of the youngest superintendents of the Military Academy in June 1919, and initiated a number of reforms: codification of the Honor Code, revitalization of the curriculum, emphasis on the humanities and social sciences in addition to the “hard” sciences, and an attempt to end hazing. With these reforms, MacArthur tried to reflect the citizen-soldier nature of the cadets. His term ended in 1922, when he received orders for the Philippines. Three years later, he returned to the United States to command the Third and Fourth Corps areas in Baltimore and Atlanta, respectively. He faced the problems of a shrinking military budget, obsolescent equipment, decrepit facilities, and a low reenlistment rate. Three years later, in 1928, he was again in the Pacific as commander of the Department of the Philippines.
MacArthur held the position for two years; in November 1930 he was back home as army chief of staff. His experience in the Corps commands served him well in dealing with the even more stringent military budgets of the Great Depression. Though he focused on plans for industrial mobilization and manpower procurement, he became involved in political affairs as well. In 1932 he convinced President Herbert Hoover to send in troops to dislodge from Washington, D.C., the Bonus Army, a group of World War I veterans attempting to gain promised compensation from the government.
He was again in the Philippines in 1935, preparing that colony’s military for independence. When he was ordered home in 1937, before the job was completed, he chose instead to retire and stay in Manila. He was appointed field marshal in the Philippine Commonwealth Army. When war against Japan seemed imminent in 1941, MacArthur was recalled to active duty and appointed commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). As Philippine field marshal, MacArthur seemed to overestimate the abilities of his adopted army, while underestimating those of the Japanese. He learned the difference on 8 December 1941 when most of his air forces were destroyed on the ground by surprise Japanese attacks. He ordered a fighting withdrawal from Japanese forces landing on the island of Luzon, and spent the next months preparing defensive positions on the peninsula of Bataan and the island of Corregidor. He begged the U.S. government for reinforcements and supplies, but the decision in Washington was to write off the Philippines and defend Australia. MacArthur was ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to evacuate the islands with his family and staff, which he did on 11 March 1942. U.S. and Filipino forces held out another month before their surrender to the Japanese.
In Australia, MacArthur was named supreme commander of the Southwest Pacific area. He secured the lines of communication by denying the Japanese a base at Port Moresby. With limited troops and support craft, he repulsed the southward Japanese advance across the island in the summer of 1942. He and Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), worked on strategy to carry the war to Japan’s home islands. With army troops and naval support, MacArthur would stage leapfrogging amphibious landings along the western Pacific islands to bypass or cut off large Japanese fortifications or troop concentrations. The strategy proved successful as American forces worked their way northwest up the Solomon Island chain, New Guinea, and to the Philippines. Nimitz meanwhile used Marines and naval forces to “island hop” across the Central Pacific while bypassing major Japanese strong points. Both commanders used the growing American superiority in aircraft and warships to neutralize Japanese bases.
MacArthur argued for an early invasion of the Philippines to fulfill his promise to the population that he would return. He overcame the Washington leaders who preferred an assault on Formosa, and ultimately Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed. MacArthur and Nimitz carried out a joint operation in October 1944 against the island of Leyte. It was a daring plan, attacking the central section of the archipelago to split the defenders occupying the islands and prevent them from unifying. MacArthur was then able to separately defeat both Japanese forces. He spent the remainder of the war organizing the redeployment of his troops to areas outside his command and launching cleanup operations against the bypassed Philippine islands. On 2 September 1945 he presided over the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.
Now a five-star general, MacArthur was appointed military governor of occupied Japan. He transferred his headquarters to Tokyo on 8 September and began his oversight of the political and economic reconstruction of Japan. As supreme commander of Allied Powers, he directed the writing of a new Japanese constitution. His term as governor can be described as one of the most efficient, honest, and fair of all military occupations in history. Much of Japan’s condition today can be attributed to the foundations MacArthur laid in the late 1940s.
On 25 June 1950, North Korean forces attacked across the 38th parallel into South Korea. The weak nature of the South Korean military and the inability to provide sufficient reinforcements left only the south-eastern corner of the country around the port city of Pusan uncaptured. MacArthur was named supreme commander of United Nations forces on 8 July. Because his immediate goal was to prevent the fall of Pusan, he brought in as many American troops as were available from occupation duty in Japan, and ordered American airpower to support the forces trapped in what came to be called the Pusan Perimeter. While the area was being held by General Walton Walker’s Eighth Army, MacArthur argued for newly arriving forces to be committed to a daring assault of Inchon, the harbor city serving the South Korean capital of Seoul on the peninsula’s west coast. Again, MacArthur’s influence and persuasiveness overcame Pentagon objections, and the landings on 15 September were an overwhelming success.
The United Nations expanded the scope of the conflict by permitting South Korean forces (closely supported by U.N. forces) to invade North Korea. The Communist Chinese government threatened intervention if their border was threatened, but MacArthur was certain they were bluffing; at Wake Island in mid-October, he assured President Harry Truman that the Chinese would not get involved. On 25–26 November 1950, the Chinese launched a massive assault that pushed U.N. forces south of the 38th parallel. Just as he had underestimated the Japanese in the late 1930s, he repeated his mistake in 1950. From the beginning, MacArthur and Truman could not agree on a strategy. Truman feared an escalating conflict that could become World War III, while MacArthur continued to believe in the goal of liberating North Korea. In addition to their personal differences, MacArthur began to publicly criticize Truman’s foreign policy; he felt his hands were tied because the president would not let him increase air operations, blockade Chinese ports, deploy Nationalist Chinese forces from Formosa, or possibly use nuclear weapons. Truman began to depend on the advice of Field Commander General Matthew Ridgeway, and MacArthur’s continuing critical tone and public statements released against orders proved too much for the president. MacArthur was relieved of his command on charges of insubordination on 11 April 1951. He returned to an adoring public and talk of the presidency in 1952, but his increasingly aggressive statements soon turned the public against him. He retired to West Point where (as he informed Congress of an old ballad common at the academy) he, like other old soldiers, faded away.
References: Carver, Michael, ed., The War Lords: Military Commanders of the Twentieth Century (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976); Costello, John, The Pacific War, 1941–1945 (New York: Quill, 1982); Manchester, William, American Caesar (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978).